WASHINGTON – The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Agency (APHIS) of the US Dept. of Agriculture has decided to shelve guidelines related to the agency’s animal traceability program.

USDA-APHIS planned to transition cattle and bison producers to radio frequency identification (RFID) tags from metal ear tags for cattle and bison. The agency intended to discontinue providing free metal ear tags starting Dec. 31.

“While the need to advance a robust joint Federal-State-Industry Animal Disease Traceability (ADT) capability remains an important USDA-APHIS objective,” USDA -APHIS said in a statement, “we will take the time to reconsider the path forward and then make a new proposal, with ample opportunity for all stakeholders to comment.”

But ranchers groups such as the Ranchers Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) and four ranchers from Wyoming and South Dakota challenged the federal traceability program. A legal complaint argued that USDA lacks the authority to mandate RFID use and issued the new plan without allowing time for public comment and without publishing it in the Federal Register, among other issues.

But, after listening to producer feedback, the agency reversed course, and said it would revisit the proposed guidelines. APHIS removed a factsheet explaining the plan from its website, saying that “…it is no longer representative of current agency policy.”

“As we undertake this reconsideration of whether or when to put new requirements in place, we will encourage the use of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) devices through financial incentives that are also consistent with suggestions we have received from cow/calf producers and others,” USDA-APHIS said. “We continue to believe that RFID devices will provide the cattle industry with the best protection against the rapid spread of animal diseases, as well as meet the growing expectations of foreign and domestic buyers.”

R-CALF noticed the fact sheet had been removed. Harriet Hageman of the New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) who filed the R-CALF lawsuit challenging the traceability guidelines, said “We hope that USDA's removal of the 'Factsheet' from its website demonstrates that the agency acknowledges the strength of our lawsuit challenging its illegal effort at mandating RFID for livestock producers who seek to sell their livestock across state lines.

“Such a move would be a victory for the rule of law, confirm that ‘guidance’ cannot be used to nullify a properly adopted regulation, and provide much needed certainty for the industry.”